Tuesday, November 22, 2011
Athena K's Review - A Long Long Way
It is fitting that my copy of Sebastian Barry's A Long Long Way contains quoted praise from J.M. Coetzee, whose novel Disgrace had me impressed and appalled (appreciative of the mastery and cringing from the subject) in a way similar to my reaction to this novel. A Long Long Way resonates with me - days after putting it down I can't get these images out of my head. Unfortunately, those images are scenes of gruesome death in the trenches during World War I (not exactly my favorite). But while I won't be wanting to revisit the topic for a while, I have to admit this was a masterful book, and I'm disappointed that it lost out to John Banville's snooze The Sea for the 2005 Booker.
Barry begins with a sympathetic and complex character, Willie Dunne, who takes the reader on a journey through the emotional landscape of war: terror, pain, loss and horror, yes, but also camaraderie, nationalism, familial love, and hope. But Barry's true gift is in describing the horrors of the war with gorgeous, poetic language. I especially admire his descriptions of the first chlorine gas attack ("it was the force of something they did not know that drove them shoving and gasping away from that long, long monster with yellow skin"); the awful thick mud encountered in the trenches, and the shattering cold of a winter on the front lines. These moments of description overcame my general aversion to war novels to the point where I can actually picture myself re-reading this book.
Willie Dunne experiences the worst of the war: the piss and shit and blood and guts and tears and panic of the Irish soldiers in Belgium and at home. My Irish history is a little rusty, so I needed to read up on the the uprising of 1916. But a detailed knowledge was not necessary to understand the passion and tragedy of their situation. Barry successfully made me feel emotional about an unexpected subject, and painted a vivid portrait that took me somewhat reluctantly into the trenches. It was deeply moving, and perhaps even scarring. But recommended.